Too Few People Are On Food Stamps

Republicans are gearing up to cut food stamps on claims that there are too many people on the program. Such attempts to redistribute from the poor are a constant of Republican governance (the party of envy), and so it comes as no real surprise. But the underlying claims about the food stamp program are false. In fact, too few Americans are currently on food stamps, as participation rates clearly show.

Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Americans receiving food stamp benefits on an average month rose from 26 million to 46 million (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII).

When asked why this happened, most commenters point out that we had a giant recession and that this swelled the rolls. Because of massive job losses and income declines, many more people became eligible for food stamps and therefore many more people signed up for benefits.

But this is only half of the story. While the number of people eligible for benefits certainly increased, so too did the participation rates of those eligible. During this period, the take up rate for food stamps rose from 66 to 83 percent.

This 25 percent increase in take up is wonderful news and the persistent upward trend is nothing but encouraging. But it's not good enough. We should aim for 100% take up rates, a feat some states (e.g. Maine, Oregon, and Michigan) have already accomplished.

If we adjust the food stamp enrollment figures so as to exclude the increase in take up (i.e. hold take up rates constant at their 2007 levels), we get the following graph:

Adjusted for the increase in take up rates, food stamp enrollment peaked in 2011 and began falling in 2012 (data on take up is not available yet for years after 2012). Fully half of the rise in overall enrollment is attributable to increasing take up rates, which again is not a bad thing and should actually be celebrated as administrative progress.

Going forward, we should hope to see two basic trends unfold. The first trend is that take up rates will continue to rise and hopefully reach nearly 100%. This would mean, in 2012, an increase of 9.4 million people enrolled in food stamps. The second trend is that rising employment levels will lead to less unemployment and increasing wages, which will incidentally mean that many people will become ineligible for food stamps. Combined, the effect of these two trends on overall enrollment should largely offset one another.

A return to 2007 eligibility levels with 100% take up would bring food stamp enrollment down to around 40 million from 46 million, a large decrease in participation relative to the status quo, but not nearly as low as it used to be.